Okanagan health unit trying to keep people alive through harm reduction

The desire and means to help people engaged in high-risk behaviours is alive and well in the Town of Princeton.

The public health unit, located at the Princeton General Hospital, distributes harm reduction supplies, for free. The demand for these products has increased in the past couple of years, according to public health nurse Jacqueline Cimbaro.

“I think people are becoming more aware now that it’s on the internet. They can look up on the internet the sites where they can get harm reduction,” she said. “My predecessor said she didn’t get a lot of call before for harm reduction – once in a blue moon. With the overdose crisis now people are much more aware and we have people coming in all the time.”

A myriad of products is available. Drug users can source clean needles, sterile water to mix with drugs, sterile cookers, alcohol swaps, tourniquets, Vitamin C – which is a safe acid that is also used when preparing drugs – and pipe kits.

Drug users are at risk of life-threatening infections if they use dirty equipment, and there is always the chance of cross-contamination with a poison like Carfentanil.

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People participating in high-risk sexual activity can also get condoms at the office.

Cimbaro said she probably sees about six clients a week, and sometimes those people are passing through town and locating the health unit using a phone app.

“There are people that think we are enabling people to do drugs and that’s not what we are trying to do here. These people are engaged in high risk behaviours already and we are just trying to help them do it in a slightly less risky way… We would like them to stay as healthy as possible and hopefully turn their lives around. We like to keep them alive long enough to do that.”

She stressed that distributing supplies is one small piece of Interior Health’s overall harm reduction programs.

“This is part of a much wider strategy throughout Interior Health. It’s all of those polices – programs and practices that aim to reduce death and injury to people…Drug and alcohol councillors, mental health clinicians, sometimes there are people in the community, family supports workers – it’s multi-faceted.”

All clients are anonymous and Cimbaro does not ask personal questions. However she said as a front line worker she is sometimes given the opportunity to help someone to treatment.

“It’s just one little door, if you will, and some people just want to come and get their supplies and go. And then some people want to ask a few questions. Some people say ‘you know, I am at the end of my rope and I think I need help. And then I can refer them to the appropriate agencies.”

Display to spark conversation about overdoses in Okanagan

Cimbaro said fighting stigma is part of the job.

“We are also trying to send a message that their lives matter. They are people who have an illness, like any other illness, and this is addiction,” she said.

“Some people are afraid. They don’t have sympathy for these people. But I would say to those people: ‘If it were your daughter, or son, or your mother or your father, or your best friend, how would that change things for you?’”

Related: Another Princeton family devastated by drug death

The Spotlight contacted Interior Health for information about the costs of harm reduction supplies and programming, but that request could not be filled as the paper went to press.

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andrea.demeer@similkameenspotlight.com

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